Many of our younger readers might not recognize the name Mink Deville. That’s cool. I was born in 1974, and the band — led by the soulful and charismatic Willy DeVille — was at first barely a blip on my own rock ‘n’ roll radar. As I got a bit older, however, I began to appreciate the influence DeVille had on a range of artists: from Black and Blue/Emotional Rescue-era Rolling Stones to Southside Johnny and countless others. So it’s with sadness that I note Willy DeVille’s passing, at age 58, from pancreatic cancer.
Willy was a true American musical original. Though Mink DeVille helped lay the cornerstones for New York punk, they were hardly as brash as say, the Ramones. Nevertheless, they were one of CBGB’s earliest house bands, threading blues, r&b, Spanish rhythms and rockabilly together with the gnarlier tones of the day. Unlike the funky pan-globalism of Talking Heads or the austere jam-bandiness of Television, Mink infused the scene with true soul. Equal parts sashay and attitude, Willy and his boys kept the flame of electrified Americana alight during some dark days for popular music.
With his smooth criminal stage persona, Willy was like the punter version of the late, great Phil Lynott of Thin Lizzy — another man whose pure soulfulness was at odds with the sensibilities of his era. For Phil, the available musical vernacular was hard rock; for Willy, it was punk. Both men share a canny, if earnestly romantic, understanding of “the street” — something that Mick Jagger, for all his borrowed Big Apple posturing, could never completely achieve. But Willy had it. In fucking spades.
Capitol Records’ Ben Edmonds:
When Mink DeVille took the stage at CBGB and tore into “Let Me Dream if I Want To” followed by another scorcher called “She’s So Tough,” they had me. These five guys… were obviously part of the new energy, but I also felt immediately reconnected to all the rock & roll I loved best: the bluesy early Stones, Van Morrison… the subway scenarios of the The Velvet Underground, Dylan‘s folk-rock inflections, the heartbreak of Little Willie John, and a thousand scratchy old flea market 45s. Plus they seemed to contain all the flavors of their New York neighborhood, from Spanish accents to reggae spice.
After Mink DeVille wound down, Willy moved to New Orleans and dove headfirst into that city’s classic soul/r&b scene. He found his spiritual home in the Big Easy, but the late-’80s, early-’90s music business was still very much rooted to its Los Angeles power center, which held zero appeal for DeVille. “I say it every time I record in L.A. — that I’ll never do it again, and I keep doing it,” he said in 1992. “It’s crazy. I just record and go to the hotel, and never go out, then back to the studio. I hate L.A. It’s the worst. I think they eat their children there. I never saw any kids. It’s a pity there aren’t more studios in New Orleans.”
And it’s a pity that Willy is no longer with us. Hopefully, more people will discover his music through word of mouth and tributes from other artists.
I compel you to check out the song “Mixed Up Shook Up Girl” post-haste. And then track down copies of the first two Mink albums, Mink DeVille and Return to Magenta. I dare you not to dig.
Here’s a live performance of “Spanish Stroll” from 1982 or so:
And “Cadillac Walk” (same vintage):
Fucking cool. I already miss you, Willy DeVille.